Last Flight

by Steven H. Edwards

"Seven feet, one quarter inch." That was Stanley's standard answer to the question regarding his most obvious attribute. I once tried to make my living as a flight instructor, and Stanley O. Duncan III was my last student.

Stanley appeared at the St. Augustine airport one Saturday morning in a brand new Volvo, a. A telephone handset was pressed to his right ear. It was the summer of 1971, and car phones were not the common sight that they are today. He put the phone down as he pulled into a parking place next to where I was standing. The cord to the handset was simply tied to the emergency brake handle between the seats.

He ducked his head in order to unfold from the car, and as he stood to his full height Stanley began to draw attention. By the time he entered the terminal, everyone at the airport was watching him.

"I'd like to learn to fly," he said, "I understand that you have a guaranteed solo course for $99?"

The desk clerk looked past Stanley, first at me, then to Jim Moser, the boss' son. All either of us could do was raise our eyebrows and smile. At the rates that were common in 1971, we could solo new students for $99 in a J-3 Cub and still make money. It was obvious that Stanley would never fit into a J-3, and since Jim was 6' 4" and weighed 250 pounds, he and Stanley would never fit into any airplane next to each other. I was going to teach Stanley to fly.

My initial task was to find an airplane that would contain both Stanley and me, would not cost a fortune to operate, and was forgiving to a new student. A Cessna 150 was out of the question along with a J-3 due to Stanley's knee room requirements. While a Piper Cherokee was a very tight fit and a possibility, in the end, a Cessna 172 turned out to be comfortable for both of us. Soloing Stanley was not going to be a money making proposition.

From the beginning things went badly. Stanley just didn't have the coordination to remain stable in the air. He seemed to be in a constant skid to either the left or the right. When his wings were level, he would be climbing or diving. If he settled on one altitude it was always with one wing lower than the other. Ernie Moser, the owner of the company and a real live barnstormer from the 30's, had always told me, "Anyone who can drive a car can fly an airplane." I never rode with Stanley in his car, so to this day I question Stanley's ability to drive.

When, after twelve hours of dual instruction, I reported that Stanley was no closer to soloing than the day he first walked in, Ernie began mumbling about lost profits.

"When's he scheduled to fly again?", Ernie huffed, "I'll take him up myself."

I should add here that Ernie taught me more about flying than anyone since Mr. Etzwiler, my primary flight instructor in Warrant Officer flight school. The problem with Ernie was that he had never held an official flight instructor's rating. But Ernie was the boss, and I figured that if anyone could get Stanley ready to solo, Ernie would do it.

Ernie's lesson with Stanley was the next Saturday. As Jim and I sat in the pilot's lounge and watched Ernie and Stanley pre-flight the 172 we saw Ernie glanced at us with that look that clearly said that he was going to teach this student to fly. Stanley and Ernie wedged themselves into the airplane, got it started and taxied straight to the end of runway 13. We knew that Ernie would have Stanley at the controls unless he absolutely had to intervene. So far so good for Stanley; he hadn't left the ground yet. The 172 moved down the runway, eased into the air and disappeared from sight as it lurched into a westbound turn.

An hour and a half later we heard Ernie's voice on Unicom announcing that November 46576 was on final for runway 6. He didn't sound happy. As the 172 came into sight over the runway threshold, it was obvious that Ernie was flying; the landing was a little too hot, and the airplane taxied toward the terminal a little too fast. The propeller stopped even before the airplane came to an abrupt halt in front of the terminal. Ernie bounded from the right side of the 172 and stormed toward the pilot's lounge. Behind him, in the pilot's seat, looking rather bewildered, sat Stanley.

I was worried that Ernie would pronounce Stanley ready to solo. That is, I was worried until he came through the door and without slowing down muttered, "He'll never learn to fly! Either give him his money back or get him soloed quick." I looked out at the 172 and saw Stanley staring forelornly toward the terminal while he slumped in his seat. He was still mine to deal with, and I didn't know what to do with him next

Over the next few weeks Stanley continued to faithfully show up, regardless of weather, for each flight lesson that he scheduled. We continued to fly, with the same results. In retrospect it now seems obvious that he was making slow progress, but at that time his progress was imperceptible. Some days he couldn't keep his wings level, other days his approach would be a dive aimed at the end of the runway, on still other days he seemed determined to try to do full power stall demonstrations on each take-off. He had yet to make a successful landing unassisted.

Toward the end of my career as a flight instructor, I had Stanley working on fundamental air work as we flew from St. Augustine to Craig Airport in Jacksonville. He was smoother than his usual form. His approach was so good that, for the first time, I kept my hands off the wheel and my feet flat on the floor. I tried to limit my conversation to soft reminders, "You're a little fast, ease up your nose. Relax on the rudder, you're lined up great. Just relax and wait till it's time to flare."

Stanley began his flare just a little too high, but still within limits. He brought up the nose of the 172 and let his speed bleed off, waiting for a full-stall landing. I knew that we were going to drop a little and I knew that we were landing a little fast, but this was going to be his first successful landing. Stanley had this one wired and he needed the confidence builder. I began to smile when I felt the airplane quiver slightly and drop toward the runway.

Stanley dropped the 172 in from about ten feet. We landed on the center line and bounced back into the air. "Just hold the wheel where it is and keep us lined up on the runway," I thought, now knowing that I would someday be able to solo Stanley.

Then things reverted to normal for Stanley, and I can only speculate what he was thinking because I never asked him. As we bounced back into the air he must have remember the times that he had seen other pilots cushion a landing by adding a little power. Instead of cushioning the landing Stanley shoved the throttle in all the way. At the same time he realized that he had not achieved a full stall landing, so he yanked the wheel all the way back into his lap. Time slowed dramatically as we seemed to virtually hang by the prop. My mind showed me visions of dropping out of the air and knocking the tail off the airplane.

With both hands I shoved on wheel, fighting to get the nose down a little before we stalled twenty feet up in the air. The controls didn't budge! Stanley had the wheel imbedded in his chest. I heard myself yelling, "I've got it! I've got it! Let go of the wheel!" as I had that sick feeling that comes just before something very bad happens.

Stanley felt me shoving on the wheel and got the hint. He pushed it all the way forward, now locking his elbows in a fully extended position. With the engine screaming at full power the 172 refused stall. Instead we began what seemed to be a slow forward rotation. I hadn't had time yet to pull the throttle and I wondered what the prop was going to look like after it hit the runway at maximum rpm. Now I found myself fighting to get the nose up. I looked down and saw my feet planted firmly against the instrument panel as I tried to wrestle the wheel back just a little bit. I glanced to my left and saw Stanley staring straight ahead, eyes and mouth wide open, oblivious to everything around him. I brought back my left hand, ready to hit him in the face to get his attention.

Then Stanley let go of everything. His hands came off the wheel as though he had touched a hot stove-top. In very quick succession, the wheel slammed all the way back into my chest, the 172's nose rose very slightly, we hit the runway nose-wheel first and I grabbed the throttle yanking it all the way back. Only then did I feel that I was beginning to gain control of the landing. As we dropped onto the main gear I let the nose down as gently as I could, praying that the nose-gear was still there. I heard one of the flight service station personnel come on the radio and say, "I logged four operations for that landing." I don't recall ever making another flight with Stanley.

I saw him again after I retired from flight instruction and returned to college. The instructor who was hired to take my place had inherited him and Stanley had graduated to the Piper Cherokee when the 172 was sold. As I walked into the pilot's lounge at St. Augustine airport, I noticed the Cherokee sitting at the end of runway 6. It looked almost as though someone had pushed the airplane back up against the chain link fence that separated the airport property from US. Highway 1. I noticed some people jogging from the hangar toward the runway and decided to join the crowd gathering around the Cherokee.

Stanley and his new instructor were getting out as I walked up to the airplane and cars had begun stop on the highway. I pushed to the front of the crowd and found myself standing next to Stanley. We both stood quietly, staring at the airplane before us. The top rail of the chain link fence was twisted around the prop and the leading edge of both wings were very flat. I looked past the airplane, past the hole in the chain link fence and quickly figured out that Stanley and his new instructor had come down in the southbound lane of Highway 1, skipped over the highway median and the northbound lane, and landed through the fence.

Stanley gently elbowed me. As I looked up into his face he smiled. I have never thought of going back to flight instruction. I wonder how many others have been convinced by Stanley O. Duncan III to give up the profession?